Benghazi Times Infinity

Republicans are once again preparing to launch an oversight offensive. Democrats can’t afford to be unprepared.

An illustration of a bow strung with a gavel
Getty; The Atlantic

When the Tea Party wave swept Republicans into the House majority in 2010, they had one objective: to effectively end the presidency of Barack Obama by inundating his administration with investigations and subpoenas. Representative Darrell Issa of California, the top Republican on the powerful House Oversight Committee, and my boss at the time, declared that he wanted “seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks.”

This is exactly what Republicans are hoping to do to President Joe Biden with their new House majority and the instruments of congressional-oversight authority. Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and James Comer of Kentucky, the top Republicans on the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees, respectively, have not hidden the fact that they intend to use the power of the gavel to launch successive probes targeting, among others, the Justice Department and the FBI, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and the president’s family, notably his son Hunter. Remember Benghazi? Get ready for more of the same—a lot more of the same.

Congressional Democrats are now the first line of defense for the Biden administration. And they will have a series of consequential decisions to make about which personnel they appoint to serve on Republican-led committees. The Biden administration’s best chance of weathering these politically charged probes may come down to Democrats’ willingness to buck tradition and ignore seniority, as they did when Issa became chair a decade ago.

Back then, the top Democrat on the Oversight panel was the mild-mannered Representative Ed Towns of New York. After Issa ran roughshod over him for two years, the Democratic leadership realized it had to recalibrate if it had any chance of blunting Issa’s probes and saving Obama’s agenda. Democrats got smart. They broke the precedent of letting the most senior member automatically assume the ranking position, and sidelined Towns. The plan was to bypass the more senior Carolyn Maloney and elevate Elijah Cummings.

Cummings was a powerful speaker and a brilliant tactician, and he was always disciplined in his approach to hearings: the perfect foil for the more impulsive Issa. We knew this was trouble—so much so that we worked behind the scenes to try to bolster Maloney’s campaign to be the ranking member. I remember trying to leak stories about how Issa hated her, and that the worst thing that could possibly happen from his perspective would be to make her his counterpart. Our plan obviously didn’t work: Cummings became the ranking member. But the story tells you how formidable we considered him.

When Democrats underestimated the Republican Oversight offensive, they got crushed. When they recalibrated, they were very successful at blunting Issa. (Google Sandra Fluke if you need an example.) Now, all these years later, Democrats are faced with another pivotal moment. Republicans have retaken the House majority. But that majority is far too slim to yield significant policy victories. So they will once again have to rely on their Oversight show to wield power, and to keep the GOP base engaged and agitated.

Never mind that they’ve spent the past six years completely undermining congressional oversight. Never mind that when Donald Trump was president and they had the majority, they suddenly lost the appetite to conduct rigorous oversight of the executive branch. Never mind that they have defied congressional subpoenas and taken a wrecking ball to the checks-and-balances system.

They’re banking on the fact that as the media chronicle their fishing expeditions masquerading as investigations, they won’t provide that context for the American people. That’s not a bad bet. Case in point: the “report” released recently by Jim Jordan about the so-called politicization of the FBI that garnered headlines for how “extensive” it was—except, of the 1,050 pages provided, about 1,000 of them were just old letters the Republicans had sent the administration. This wasn’t a report; it was a retread of old material. The Republicans surmised that volume could replace substance, and that some in the media would fall for it. They were right.

Once, I worked for the Republicans. Now I advise Democrats. My professional opinion is that Democrats should again ignore seniority. Just as Issa elevated and recruited members such as Jordan, Mark Meadows, Mike Pompeo, and Patrick McHenry—all of whom would become major figures in Trump’s remade version of the Republican Party—Democrats must now answer the call and elevate their best communicators. After all, the No. 1 mission of the Democratic minority should be communications. Obvious candidates for the top jobs on Oversight and Judiciary include Jamie Raskin and David Cicilline.

Democrats should also get used to thinking of Oversight and Judiciary as one entity in order to avoid jurisdictional headaches. During the Obama years, Issa served on both panels at the same time. Jordan brought most of his Oversight staff to the Judiciary Committee. In anticipation of the “red wave” victory, Jordan and Comer planned a joint press conference to announce their oversight agenda, signaling their intention to synchronize their efforts to take down the Biden Administration. The wave never materialized, but clearly they realize that synchronization is key to the tactical success of the Oversight operation.

Seniority and ceremony should not guide decisions. Republicans will do their utmost to bring down the Democratic administration, just as they did when Issa was in charge—except this time, they’ll do so in service of an authoritarian in waiting. Democrats can’t risk being caught flat-footed again.